Monday, August 12, 2013

Lessons From the Intersection

"Would you be interested in teaching stress-relieving yoga to staff in a psychiatric ward?" When I received this question, I immediately said yes. How wonderful, I thought, to support people who are deep in the trenches, dealing with mental illness day after day.

And then the email came that told me the class would be a mix of staff and hand-picked patients.

And when I actually taught the first class, it was all patients with just one staff member, quietly typing away on her COW (computer on wheels).

A lotus flower blooms over several days, rising out of the
dirtiest water at dawn and sinking back down at sundown
I was warned to not touch the patients or let them touch me, and I was told that there may be some outburst during class, which is why a staff member would be with me the entire time. I grew a little apprehensive after hearing this. We had limited props and space; originally, we had discussed holding the classes in a secluded courtyard, but the logistics of that idea were too great a hurdle to overcome. I did find a room with a door that could be closed to shut out the hospital traffic and noise - to some degree. Once I did that, I found myself alone in the room with the patients. But by that time, I had begun to see them without any fear. Most of them were very spacey from the medications they were on; occasionally, they interrupted the class with questions, laughter, tears, stories, songs, jumping jacks, karate kicks and other behaviors that arise when our mental filters disappear. In between it all, we breathed, stretched, moved a little and relaxed (somewhat) quietly.

I learned three priceless lessons from teaching this class over the past year:

humility and

Don't I know you?

A funny thing happened as I returned week after week: I started to recognize people. Not in the way you might think, because I rarely saw the same person more than once or twice. I started recognizing the people I had seen only once. I thought, I think I know him, or, I've probably passed her on the street at some point, or, have I taught him yoga, or, I might be related to her.

"I never thought I'd find myself in a place like this," a patient told me once. "But I could feel my life slipping away and I was afraid it would only get worse." I knew that feeling. I had been there at times. A darkness that's insatiable, as the Indigo Girls phrased it in their song, "Closer to Fine." I had felt that darkness at times, the pull of the black hole that covers me in a silent blanket and simultaneously loudly chants over and over in my mind to just be still and let myself be replaced by all the pain, sorrow and suffering. Or the too-bright confusion of overstimulating days when anxiety and fear make leaving the house an unsurmountable challenge... Something always pulled me back from those days, though. Family, friends, humor, stubbornness. Yoga brought me even more tools, and as I balanced my emotions more and more, yoga helped me experience less and less of these dark days.

An expression kept forming in my mind as I left the ward: there but for the grace of god go I. For these patients, this treatment, this practice, this situation was what was pulling them back.

Deep Bows to the Teacher

Once, I attempted to help a woman who was really struggling; she told me she thought she was having a panic attack, and I could see that she was shaking, her breath was stuttering and she was wobbly on her feet. She was the only one who showed up to class that day, so we talked and walked a little as I attempted to get her to breathe a little deeper. After a few minutes, she left. When I saw her again, some weeks later, she was a different person - calm, steady on her feet and easily communicative. She told me she had been going through withdrawal from her anti-anxiety medication (ironically) the last time I saw her. She was so much better when I saw her the second time and I knew I had nothing to do with it, although she was very grateful that I had tried to help. I attribute yoga for changing so much about my life, but there are limits. No amount of breathing or standing poses or mantras would help her that day, just patience. Even yoga has its limits, and sometimes life is the guru. Namaste, Life.

Letting go

If I am honest about my thoughts when I first received the invitation to teach this class, I will say that my ego perked right up. You want me to teach this challenging class? Well, of course! Who else is "qualified", but me? (My ego sounds like a 10-year old, or a Steve Martin Saturday Night Live skit, depending on the situation.) But when my 10-year old ego stepped onto the ward and started to lead the class, we both quickly realized that she wasn't going to last. With regular interruptions from the staff (the original space was right out in the open) and no eye contact from the patients, my ego felt deprived of respect and attention and soon slunk away. There were classes where I felt like it was a waste of time for me to come, and that the staff only saw my class as a mild distraction for their patients. But then I remembered that it wasn't about me and if just one patient gained some insight about their breath or their tension, it was more than worth it. I challenged myself to walk the find line between caring for the patients and letting go of any results from my teaching. The patients came and went. Sometimes they stayed for the whole class... sometimes they didn't. Sometimes they followed my instructions... sometimes they made up their own. Sometimes they met me with disdain, fear or apathy... sometimes they smiled and relaxed. As my teacher, Tias Little, once said, "To live at the intersection of radical okay-ness and discernment, that is life's challenge."

Occasionally, we lose our way from that intersection, and we teeter dangerously off the edge. I'm so honored that I was able to share what I know about yoga, and that the patients were able to share what they know about living.


  • Please see my previous post about schedule changes coming in September.
  • Sunday, September 15: Basics of Pranayama and Chanting; this 1-day workshop is at Mind-Body Zone in Fremont; see the Events page for more information.
  • Share my blog with others, and invite them to sign up. This is one of the best ways I have to get news out to you all!
  • Remember, if you can't make it to class, you can always pop in my DVD, Healing Yoga for Wellness, available online at and, and in stores at Breathe Los Gatos, Pacific Healing Arts, Cancer CAREpoint resource center and Kaiser Mind-Body-Wellness center.